skip to Main Content
About the Music

Click the tabs on left to read each month’s program notes

ABOUT THE MUSIC

October 2019 Masterworks

by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Suite for Orchestra

Zev Malina (b. 2002)
Composed in 2016-2019
World Premiere

Zev Malina started composing at age eleven, writing short piano works. In 2014, he received the first Young Composer’s Award of the Double Bass Coalition for his Double Bass Quartet, which he wrote for the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music. As a fund-raising project in 2015, Malina composed a setting for narrator and chamber ensemble of Robert McCloskey’s children’s book Blueberries for Sal, which has raised over $50,000 for Harrisburg area libraries and was used for several educational concerts by the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. In 2017 and 2019, he won the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s National Young Composers Challenge. Malina attended the summer composition program at the Interlochen Arts Academy in 2017 and the Brevard Music Center Summer Festival the following year. He currently works with composer Jonathan Leshnoff. Zev Malina has studied piano since 2006 with Josefina Melgar and Ya-Ting Chang, and bassoon since 2014 with Kimberly Nolet. He has performed professionally as a pianist with Market Square Concerts and is also Principal Bassoon of the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra.

Zev Malina wrote of the Suite for Orchestra, “I composed Dreamscape [the second movement] for the National Young Composer’s Challenge in 2016, and won. This led to a reading by the Orlando Philharmonic in November 2017. Winning the same competition in 2019 with Ballet for Fighter Jets led to a reading of that piece in April 2019. My father suggested I write an opening movement (Maiden Voyage) and make those pieces part of a suite.

Maiden Voyage is bold and heroic, influenced by the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and other post-Romantic composers. Dreamscape is more expansive in feeling and more rhapsodic. While its influences are hard to trace, it has the feeling of a film score. The finale (Ballet for Fighter Jets) is highly driven by a repeated rhythmic figure while at the same time lyrical in its melodic makeup. I’ve added to the title page of the third movement the phrase ‘with a nod to DSCH,’ because the opening motive recalls Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. [i.e., Shostakovich’s musical “signature” — DSCH, the notes D–E-flat–C–B. The note D represents his initial. In German transliteration, the composer’s name begins “Sch”: S [ess] in German notation equals E-flat, C is C, and H equals B-natural.]


Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K. 537, “Coronation” (1788)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

By the closing decade of the 18th century, the end of the millennium-old Holy Roman Empire was only a few years away. Already the rising tide of revolution was breaking against this ancient imperial rock, but that did not prevent Leopold II (whose son Francis II was to dissolve the Empire in 1806) from planning a glorious coronation celebration for himself when he was crowned Emperor in Frankfurt on October 9, 1790. The ceremonies were organized from the Habsburgs’ home city of Vienna, where Mozart had been living for nearly ten years. Though Mozart had enjoyed a considerable vogue when he first arrived in 1781, his popularity had declined alarmingly during the preceding four years, and, by 1790, his financial and family situations were in steep decline. He held a small position at court as a supplier of dance music, but if only a better job — perhaps a job composing opera — would come his way, all would be fine, he wrote to his wife, who, nearly exhausted by worry and almost constant pregnancy, was often away seeking relief at various mineral baths. A retinue of more than a dozen musicians, including court music master Antonio Salieri and his assistant Ignaz Umlauf, was being assembled to supply music for the coronation, and Mozart felt that he could make a fine contribution to the proceedings and at the same time convince the Emperor of his qualifications for a promotion. When the final personnel list was posted, however, Mozart’s name was not included on it. He thought that he might still attract favorable attention if he went to Frankfurt and produced an independent concert during the coronation activities. He enlisted his brother-in-law, the violinist Franz Hofer, in the venture, and the two headed for central Germany, delaying only as long as it took Mozart to pawn enough silver to hire a coach for the trip. They journeyed through Ratisbon, Nuremberg (“a hideous town” judged this man of the Enlightenment about that splendid Gothic city) and Würzburg, and arrived in Frankfurt on September 23rd.

Mozart made arrangements for a concert on October 15th in the Stadttheater, and then went around town trying to stir up some business. The 11:00 a.m. starting time he had chosen proved to be filled with stiff competition. “Unfortunately, some prince was giving a big déjeuner and the Hessian troops were holding a grand maneuver,” he reported to his wife. The concert went on as planned — a giant affair, lasting over three hours — but it was little noticed and poorly attended. (“There were not many people,” Count von Bentheim-Steinfurt noted in his travel diary.) Mozart called it “a splendid success from the point of view of honor and glory, but a failure as far as money was concerned.” He suffered another disappointment before he left Frankfurt. His Don Giovanni, which was originally scheduled to be performed as part of the official coronation celebration, was replaced by an opera of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf: Die Liebe im Narrenhaus (“Love in the Asylum”).

Mozart included on his concert program a piano concerto that he had composed two years earlier, in 1788. Though this piece, the Concerto in D major (K. 537), was first heard in Dresden a year and a half before Leopold’s accession, it came to be known as the “Coronation” for its association with the Frankfurt festivities. Musicologist Edward Downes speculated on Mozart’s revival of the work in 1790: “The ‘Coronation’ Concerto was an apt choice for the occasion, for it contains not a note of the emotional depth or the storm and stress which Mozart knew often upset his conservative listeners.” It is possible that the popular, expressively untroubled character of this piece arose from his wish to regain some of the favor he had lost with the Viennese public. “But the gap between the average gallant taste and his ideal had grown too wide for him to bridge in so important a work,” concluded Cuthbert Girdlestone in his study of the piano concertos. By 1788, Mozart’s days of being Viennese society’s darling were over.In an overview of the “Coronation” Concerto, Alfred Einstein wrote that this is “the proper work for festive occasions. It is very Mozartean, while at the same time it does not express the whole or even the half of Mozart. It is, in fact so ‘Mozartesque’ that one might say that in it Mozart imitated himself — no difficult task for him. It is both brilliant and amiable, especially in the slow movement; it is very simple, even primitive, in its relation between the solo and the tutti, and so completely easy to understand that even the 19th century grasped it without difficulty.” For many years before World War II, it was the most popular of Mozart’s piano concertos except for the tempestuous Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466.

The Concerto’s first movement is large in size but unadventurous in form. Its orchestral introduction opens quietly with a simple, four-square theme in the strings. Other melodic fragments tumble forth before the second theme is reached following a brief phrase for unaccompanied violins. The soloist then takes up the themes and wraps them rippling, decorative filigree. After the movement’s central portion, more free fantasia than a true development of the exposition’s themes, the reprise of the earlier melodic material and a cadenza for the soloist round out the movement.

The graceful, A major Larghetto is in three-part form (A–B–A). The gallant main theme is presented immediately by the soloist, then repeated by the orchestra. The movement’s second section, also in A major, is begun by a falling phrase from the piano. These pages are stirred ever so slightly as they progress by some expressive harmonies before the opening music returns. The finale is a vivacious rondo built on a folk-inspired theme that looks forward to Papageno’s infectious music in The Magic Flute.


Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1888)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

“In the middle of the winter [of 1888], engrossed as I was in my work on Prince Igor and other things, I conceived the idea of writing an orchestral composition on the subject of certain episodes from Scheherazade.” Thus did Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov give the curt explanation of the genesis of his most famous work in his autobiography, My Musical Life. His friend Alexander Borodin had died the year before, leaving his magnum opus, the opera Prince Igor, in a state of unfinished disarray. Rimsky-Korsakov had taken it upon himself to complete the piece, and may well have been inspired by its exotic setting among the Tartar tribes in 12th-century central Asia to undertake his own embodiment of musical Orientalism. The stories on which he based his work were taken from the Thousand and One Nights, a collection of millennium-old fantasy tales from Egypt, Persia and India which had been gathered together, translated into French, and published in many installments by Antoine Galland beginning in 1704. They were in large part responsible for exciting a fierce passion for turquerie and chinoiserie among the fashionable classes of Europe later in the century, a movement that left its mark on music in the form of numerous tintinnabulous “Turkish marches” by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and a horde of lesser now-faded lights, and in Mozart’s rollicking opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. The taste for exoticism was never completely abandoned by musicians (witness Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly or Turandot or even The Girl of the Golden West; Ravel prided himself on his collection of Oriental artifacts), and proved the perfect subject for Rimsky-Korsakov’s talent as an orchestral colorist. Preliminary sketches were made for the piece in St. Petersburg during the early months of 1888, the score was largely written in June at the composer’s country place on Lake Cheryemenyetskoye, near Luga, and the orchestration completed by early August. Scheherazade was a success at its premiere in St. Petersburg in December, and it has remained one of the most popular of all symphonic works.

To refresh the listener’s memory of the ancient legends, Rimsky-Korsakov prefaced the score with these words: “The sultan Shakriar, convinced of the falsehood and inconstancy of all women, had sworn an oath to put to death each of his wives after the first night. However, the sultana Scheherazade saved her life by arousing his interest in the tales she told him during 1,001 nights. Driven by curiosity, the sultan postponed her execution from day to day, and at last abandoned his sanguinary design. Scheherazade told many miraculous stories to the sultan. For her tales she borrowed verses from the poets and words from folk-songs combining fairy-tales with adventures.” To each of the four movements of his “symphonic suite” Rimsky gave a title: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, The Story of the Kalandar Prince, The Young Prince and the Young Princess and Festival at Baghdad—The Sea—Shipwreck. At first glance, these titles seem definite enough to lead the listener to specific nightly chapters of Scheherazade’s soap opera. On closer examination, however, they prove too vague to be of much help. The Kalandar Prince, for instance, could be any one of three noblemen who dress as members of the Kalandars, a sect of wandering dervishes, and tell three different tales. “I meant these hints,” advised the composer, “to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each listener. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.”

Of the musical construction of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov noted, “A characteristic theme, the theme of Scheherazade herself, appears in all four movements. This theme is a florid melody in triplets, and it generally ends in a free cadenza. It is played, for the most part, by the solo violin.” There is another recurring theme, given in ponderous tones in the work’s opening measures, which seems at first to depict the sultan. However, the composer explained, “In vain do people seek in my suite leading motives linked always with the same poetic ideas and conceptions. On the contrary, in the majority of cases, all these seeming leitmotives are nothing but purely musical material, or the given motives for symphonic development. These given motives thread and spread over all the movements of the suite, alternating and intertwining each with the other. Appearing as they do each time under different moods, the self-same motives and themes correspond each time to different images, actions and pictures.” Well, then, if there is here no programmatic plot and if the movements tumble forth in some sort of free musical fantasy, how is the attentive listener to find his way through Rimsky-Korsakov’s story of Scheherazade? Perhaps the advice of Donald N. Ferguson about this veritable orgy of blazing orchestral color and atmospheric sensuality is profitably heard: “Ecstasies of imaginatively fulfilled desire: visions of celestial luxury engendered in the hashish-fevered mind of some squalid dreamer in the market place of Baghdad or Teheran — such are the tales of Scheherazade and the Arabian nights.”

©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

ABOUT THE MUSIC

November 2019 Masterworks

by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Classical Symphony, Op. 25 (Symphony No. 1 in D major) (1916-1917)

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

“In the field of instrumental music, I am well content with the forms already perfected. I want nothing better, nothing more flexible or more complete than sonata form, which contains everything necessary to my structural purpose.” This statement, given to Olin Downes by Prokofiev during an interview in 1930 for The New York Times, seems a curious one for a composer who had gained a reputation as an ear-shattering iconoclast, the enfant terrible of 20th-century music, the master of modernity. While it is certainly true that some of his early works (Scythian Suite, Sarcasms, the first two Piano Concertos) raised the hackles of musical traditionalists, it is also true that Prokofiev sought to preserve that same tradition by extending its boundaries to encompass his own distinctive style. A glance through the list of his works shows a preponderance of established Classical forms: sonatas, symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, quartets, overtures and suites account for most of his output. This is certainly not to say that he merely mimicked the music of earlier generations, but he did accept it as the conceptual framework within which he built his own compositions.

Prokofiev’s penchant for using Classical musical idioms was instilled in him during the course of his thorough, excellent training: when he was a little tot, his mother played Beethoven sonatas to him while he sat under the piano; he studied with the greatest Russian musicians of the time — Glière, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, Glazunov; he began composing at the Mozartian age of six. By the time he was 25, Prokofiev was composing prolifically, always brewing a variety of compositions simultaneously. The works of 1917, for example, represent widely divergent styles — The Gambler is a satirical opera; They Are Seven, a nearly atonal cantata; the Classical Symphony, a charming miniature. This last piece was a direct result of Prokofiev’s study with Alexander Tcherepnin, a good and wise teacher who allowed the young composer to forge ahead in his own manner while making sure that he had a thorough understanding of the great musical works of the past. It was in 1916 that Prokofiev first had the idea for a symphony based on the Viennese models supplied by Tcherepnin, and at that time he sketched out a few themes for it. Most of the work, however, was done the following year, as Prokofiev recounted in his Autobiography:

“I spent the summer of 1917 in complete solitude in the environs of Petrograd; I read Kant and I worked hard. I had purposely not had my piano moved to the country because I wanted to establish the fact that thematic material worked out without a piano is better…. The idea occurred to me to compose an entire symphonic work without the piano. Composed in this fashion, the orchestral colors would, of necessity, be clearer and cleaner. Thus the plan of a symphony in Haydnesque style originated, since, as a result of my studies in Tcherepnin’s classes, Haydn’s technique had somehow become especially clear to me, and with such intimate understanding it was much easier to plunge into the dangerous flood without a piano. It seemed to me that, were he alive today, Haydn, while retaining his style of composition, would have appropriated something from the modern. Such a symphony I now wanted to compose: a symphony in the classic manner. As it began to take actual form I named it Classical Symphony; first, because it was the simplest thing to call it; second, out of bravado, to stir up a hornet’s nest; and finally, in the hope that should the symphony prove itself in time to be truly ‘classic,’ it would benefit me considerably.” Prokofiev’s closing wish has been fulfilled — the Classical Symphony has been one of his most successful works ever since it was first heard.

The work is in the four movements customary in Haydn’s symphonies, though at only fifteen minutes it hardly runs to half their typical length. The dapper first movement is a miniature sonata design that follows the traditional form but adds some quirks that would have given old Haydn himself a chuckle — the recapitulation, for example, begins in the “wrong” key (but soon rights itself), and occasionally a beat is left out, as though the music had stubbed its toe. The sleek main theme is followed by the enormous leaps, flashing grace notes and sparse texture of the second subject. A graceful, ethereal melody floating high in the violins is used to open and close the Larghetto, with the pizzicato gentle

middle section reaching a brilliant tutti before quickly subsiding. The third movement, a Gavotte, comes not from the Viennese symphony but rather from the tradition of French Baroque ballet. The finale is the most brilliant movement of the Symphony, and calls for remarkable feats of agility and precise ensemble from the performers.


Trumpet Concerto (2019)

Anthony DiLorenzo (born in 1967)

Composer and trumpeter Anthony DiLorenzo was born in 1967 in the Boston suburb of Stoughton and studied with Boston Symphony Orchestra trumpeters Peter Chapman and Roger Voison before attending the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; he also studied at the Tanglewood Music Center, where he was nominated for an Avery Fisher Career Grant by Leonard Bernstein. DiLorenzo has appeared as soloist with the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, New York Philharmonic and other leading ensembles, and held positions with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New World Symphony, Santa Fe Opera and Utah Symphony. He is currently a member of the Center City Brass Quintet and the mixed chamber group Proteus 7. DiLorenzo is also an Emmy Award-winning composer who has written numerous original concert works and arrangements as well as the music for the feature film Benji: Off the Leash, more than eighty theatrical trailers for such memorable releases as Toy Story, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Red Dragon, Fool’s Gold and The Simpsons Movie, and countless cues for ESPN, HBO, NBC and ABC.


Boléro (1928)

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

“Ravel’s Boléro I submit as the most insolent monstrosity ever perpetrated in the history of music,” fumed the critic Edward Robinson in 1932. He was hardly the only music lover disparaging the piece when it was new — the composer himself informed his colleague Arthur Honegger, “I have written only one masterpiece. That is the Boléro. Unfortunately, it contains no music.” When told that a woman at the Paris premiere had pointed in his direction and cried out, “He is mad,” Ravel smiled, and said that she truly understood the work.

Despite critical misgivings, however, the public, always the ultimate arbiter, made Boléro one of the most popular pieces of concert music written in the 20th century. Within weeks of its American premiere, it carried Ravel’s name and music to more ears than had any of his other works of the preceding four decades: virtually every major American orchestra scheduled Boléro for immediate performance; six recordings appeared simultaneously; the melody was arranged for jazz bands and just about every conceivable instrument and ensemble, including solo harmonica; it appeared in a Broadway revue and a cabaret; it served as background music for the 1934 film of the same name starring Carole Lombard and George Raft, as well as another Hollywood effort of more recent vintage in which Dudley Moore pursued a beautiful fantasy on a beach in Mexico. Even the city fathers of Ravel’s home town were moved to name the street on which he was born in his honor. Soon after the Paris orchestral premiere in 1930, Ravel was in Monte Carlo with the conductor Paul Paray. When they walked past the Casino, Paray suggested, “Let’s go in and play.” Ravel replied, “No. I have played, and I don’t play any more. I have won.” Indeed he had.

Ravel originated what he once called his “danse lascive” at the suggestion of Ida Rubinstein, the famed ballerina who also inspired works from Debussy, Honegger and Stravinsky. Rubinstein’s balletic interpretation of Boléro, set in a rustic Spanish tavern, portrayed a voluptuous dancer whose stomps and whirls atop a table incite the men in the bar to mounting fervor. With growing intensity, they join in her dance until, in a brilliant coup de théâtre, knives are drawn and violence flares on stage at the moment near

the end where the music modulates, breathtakingly, from the key of C to the key of E. So viscerally stirring was the combination of the powerful music and the ballerina’s suggestive dancing at the premiere that a near-riot ensued between audience and performers, and Miss Rubinstein narrowly escaped injury. The usually reserved Pitts Sanborn reported that the American premiere, conducted by Arturo Toscanini at Carnegie Hall on November 14, 1929, had a similar effect on its hearers: “If it had been the custom to repeat a number at a symphonic concert, Boléro would surely have been encored, even at the risk of mass wreckage of the nerves.”

Of the musical nature of this magnificent study in hypnotic rhythm and orchestral sonority, Ravel wrote in 1931 to the critic M.D. Calvocoressi, “I am particularly desirous that there should be no misunderstanding about this work. It constitutes an experiment in a very special and limited direction, and should not be suspected of aiming at achieving anything different from or anything more than it actually does achieve. Before its first performance, I issued a warning to the effect that what I had written was a piece lasting about seventeen minutes and consisting wholly of ‘orchestral tissue without music’ — of one long, very gradual crescendo. There are no contrasts, there is practically no invention except the plan and the manner of execution. The themes are altogether impersonal … folktunes of the usual Spanish-Arabian kind, and (whatever may have been said to the contrary) the orchestral writing is simple and straightforward throughout, without the slightest attempt at virtuosity…. I have carried out exactly what I intended, and it is for listeners to take it or leave it.” Listeners have.


La Mer, Trois Esquisses Symphoniques (“The Sea, Three Symphonic Sketches”) (1903-1905)

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

“You may not know that I was destined for a sailor’s life and that it was only quite by chance that fate led me in another direction. But I have always held a passionate love for the sea.” With these lines written on September 12, 1903 to the composer-conductor André Messager, Debussy prefaced the notice that he had begun work on La Mer. Debussy’s father was a sailor and his tales of vast oceans and exotic lands held Claude spellbound as a boy. A family trip to Cannes when he was seven years old was Claude’s first experience of the sea, and it ignited his life-long fascination with the thoughts and moods evoked by moving water. Twenty years later, in 1889, he discovered an aspect of the sea very different from the placid one he had seen on the resort beaches of the Mediterranean. In early June of that year, he was traveling with friends along the coast of Brittany. Their plans called for passage in a fishing boat from Saint-Lunaire to Cancale, but at the time they were scheduled to leave a threatening storm was approaching and the captain advised canceling the trip. Debussy insisted that they sail. It turned out to be a dramatic, storm-tossed voyage with no little danger to crew and passengers. Debussy relished it. “Now there’s a type of passionate feeling that I have not before experienced — Danger! It is not unpleasant. One is alive!” he declared. These early experiences of the sea — one halcyon, the other threatening — were to be captured years later in La Mer.

Debussy began work on La Mer in the summer of 1903 at the vacation house of his in-laws at Bichain in the Burgundian countryside, far from the coast. To André Messager he wrote a rather startling explanation for this geographical curiosity: “You will say that the ocean does not exactly wash the Burgundian hillsides — and my seascapes might be studio landscapes; but I have an endless store of memories and, to my mind, they are worth more than the reality, whose beauty often deadens thought.” At another time he claimed that “the sight of the sea itself fascinated me to such a degree that it paralyzed my creative faculties.”

In addition to the memories of his own direct experience of the ocean, Debussy brought to La Mer a sensitivity nourished by his fascination with visual renderings of the sea. He was certainly in sympathy with the Impressionistic art of his French contemporaries, but more immediate inspiration for this particular work seems to have come from the creations of two foreign artists — the Englishman Turner,

whom Debussy called “the finest creator of mystery in art,” and the Japanese Hokusai. A selection of Turner’s wondrous, swirling sea paintings, as much color and light as image, had been shown in Paris in 1894 and were probably seen there by Debussy. Eight years later, during the 1902-1903 Turner exhibit at London’s National Gallery, Debussy again sought out these brilliant canvases, and this visit may have been the catalyst for creating La Mer. (A half century before Debussy, Turner experienced the violence of the sea first-hand when he had himself lashed to a ship’s mast during a furious storm just to see what it was like.) Japanese sea- and landscapes were popular in Paris during the 1890s as a result of their introduction there at the Universal Exhibition of 1889, whose most famous souvenir is the Eiffel Tower. The exquisite drawings of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) so pleased Debussy that he chose one of them, The Hollow of the Wave off Kanagawa, to grace the cover of the full score of La Mer.

Debussy was never a fast worker in his large compositions, and La Mer was some two years in the making. It was written largely in Paris and other land-locked locales, but the finishing touches were applied (at 6:00 p.m. on March 5, 1905, according to the manuscript) at the fashionable English seaside resort of Eastbourne. “The sea rolls with a wholly British correctness,” he observed. “There is a lawn combed and brushed on which little bits of important and imperialistic England frolic. But what a place to work! No noise, no pianos, except for the delicious mechanical pianos; no musicians talking about painting, no painters discussing music. In short, a pretty place to cultivate egoism.”

The premiere had been offered to Camille Chevillard and the Concerts Lamoureux almost a year before the work was finished, and a date for the first performance was set in the fall of 1905. When the orchestra received the parts, they were found to have been poorly proof-read and were aglare with mistakes. Chevillard complained also of the difficulty of the new piece, but Debussy was reluctant to withdraw the work from him and give it to the superior Concerts Colonne lest he create a row. The composer did not get much support from the Lamoureux players, either. Stravinsky recalled Debussy telling him, “The violinists flagged the tips of their bows with handkerchiefs at the rehearsals, as a sign of ridicule and protest.” It is little wonder that the premiere on October 15, 1905 was a lackluster occasion which created little stir in the Parisian musical community. If the uninspired performance by Chevillard was not enough to dampen the success of the premiere, Paris also seems to have been repaying Debussy for what it considered the moral outrage of abandoning his first wife, Rosalie Texier, the previous year for Emma Bardac, a gifted amateur singer and the wife of a noted financier as well as the former mistress of Gabriel Fauré. The rumors that his affection had been bought by a woman of wealth still circulated when La Mer was given, and Louis Laloy said that the premiere’s success was clouded because “prudish indignation had not yet been appeased, and on all sides people were ready to make the artist pay dearly for the wrongs that were imputed to the man.” La Mer created considerably more stir when the composer conducted it at the Concerts Colonne on January 19, 1908. The cheers and applause of the composer’s supporters mingled with the hisses and catcalls of the anti-Debussyists for a quarter of an hour before the violinist Jacques Thibaud could begin the Bach Chaconne as the next piece on the program. A performance of La Mer in London a fortnight later was greeted with enthusiasm, and the work has remained steadily in the orchestral repertory ever since as one of the great masterpieces of the early 20th century.

La Mer marked an important advance in Debussy’s style of composition. “Without in any way abandoning the delicate sensitivity of his earlier works (creating delightful impressionistic pictures out of atmospheric vibrations) which is perhaps unequaled in the world of art, his style has today become more concise, definite, positive, complete, in a word, classical,” wrote Louis Laloy after hearing the work at its premiere. The three movements of La Mer, despite their modest subtitle of “symphonic sketches,” are carefully integrated to form a single, unified composition, unlike the trio of independent musical essays which constitutes the Nocturnes, completed six years before. There is a certain technical and structural validity in David Cox’s assertion that La Mer is “the best symphony ever written by a Frenchman.” This is, however, a symphony in the modern, expanded sense, which “lacks those fixed points which can be recognized in the description of the traditional symphony and to which can be related details of departure from, as well as conformity with, the familiar patterns. It is not feasible to refer to tonalities, since there is a kind of incessant modulation. To attempt to particularize thematic material is also futile, because of equally incessant transformations,” assessed Oscar Thompson in his study of the composer. It

is just this ineffable balancing of traditional with innovative qualities that makes the music of Debussy continually fascinating.

The opening movement is titled De l’aube à midi sur la mer (“From Dawn to Noon on the Sea”). Its form, built around the play of thematic and rhythmic fragments rather than conventional melodies, is perfectly suited to expressing the changing reflections of the morning sun in the air, clouds and water. Though Erik Satie quipped that he liked the part at quarter to eleven the best, there is no specific program in this music other than a general progression from the mysterious opening of first light to the full blaze of the noon sun shining in the luminous brass chorale at the movement’s end.

Jeux de vagues (“The Play of the Waves”) is a brilliant essay in orchestral color, woven and contrasted with the utmost evocative subtlety. “The sea has been very good to me,” wrote Debussy shortly before finishing La Mer. “She has shown me all her moods.” Many of them found their way into this piece.

The finale, Dialogue du vent et de la mer (“Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea”), reflects the awesome power of the sea as well as its majesty. Lines from a letter that Debussy wrote in 1915 seem an appropriate complement to this music: “Trees are good friends, better than the ocean, which is in motion, wishing to trespass on the land, bite the rocks, with the anger of a little girl — singular for a person of its importance. One would understand it if it sent the vessels about their business as if they were only disturbing vermin.” Fragments of themes from the first movement are recalled in the finale to round out this magnificent tonal panorama by a composer who believed that “[Music] is a free art, gushing forth — an open-air art, an art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea!”

©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

 

About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

January 2020 Masterworks

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28 (1894-1895)

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

 

Composed in 1894-1895.

Premiered on November 5, 1895 in Cologne, conducted by Franz Wüllner.

“If you want to create a work that is unified in its mood and consistent in its structure, and if it is to give the listener a clear and definite impression, then what the author wants to say must have been just as clear and definite in his own mind. This is only possible through the expression of a poetical idea.” Thus wrote Richard Strauss in 1888 in a letter to his mentor, the great pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, even before he had composed his first successful tone poem, Don Juan. The “poetical idea” from which Till Eulenspiegel sprang was a well-known character of German folklore, a “rude mechanical” born in Brunswick in 1283, according to the account of 1515 by a Franciscan monk, Thomas Murner. So popular were the tales of Till that they were soon translated into a half dozen languages, including English, and fully twenty editions of his adventures had been published in French by the beginning of the 18th century. The American music critic Olin Downes wrote of this impish character, “Till, they say, was a wandering mechanic who lived by his wits, turning up in every town and city. He made himself out to be whatever the situation required — butcher, baker, wheelwright, joiner, monk, or learned metaphysician. He was a lord of misrule, a liar and villain, whose joy it was to plague honest folk and play foul jests upon them. He pillaged the rich, but often helped the poor…. For Till is freedom and fantasy; his is the gallant, mocking warfare of the One against the Many and the tyranny of accepted things. He is Puck and Rabelais, and [he inspired] quicksilver in Strauss’ music.”

The performance of an opera based on the Till legends by the forgotten Wagnerite Cyrill Kistler in Würzburg in 1889 first piqued Strauss’ interest in the subject. Strauss began sketching a libretto for a projected opera about Till by June 1893, but his lack of talent at poetry and the failure of his first opera, Guntram, the following May discouraged him from further work on the plan. When he returned to the subject several months later, the opera had become a tone poem. The work scored an immediate triumph at its premiere, and it was soon being performed by orchestras around the world. Wilhelm Furtwängler, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, called it “a stroke of genius, worthy of Beethoven.” The aged Anton Bruckner so enjoyed the first Viennese performance that he wanted to hear the work again immediately. The esteemed composer and conductor Ferruccio Busoni said lightness and humor had not been handled so well by a German composer since the days of Haydn.

Eulenspiegel” in German means “owl-mirror,” and it is generally agreed that the name of this legendary rascal, who both embodies and exploits human foibles, alludes to a German proverb: “Man sees his own faults as little as an owl recognizes his ugliness by looking into a mirror.” When asked to elucidate his music, Strauss at first refused, but later wrote to Franz Wüllner, the conductor of the premiere, “It is impossible for me to furnish a program to Eulenspiegel; were I to put into words the thoughts which its several incidents suggested to me, they would seldom suffice, and might even give rise to offense. Let me leave it, therefore, to my hearers to crack the hard nut that the Rogue has prepared for them. By way of helping them to a better understanding, it seems sufficient to point out the two Eulenspiegel motives, which, in the most manifold disguises, moods, and situations, pervade the whole up to the catastrophe, when, after he has been condemned to death, Till is strung up to the gibbet. For the rest, let them guess at the musical joke which the Rogue has offered them.” The two motives that Strauss mentioned occur immediately at the beginning of the work — the “once upon a time” phrase played by the strings, and the bounding horn theme, whose ambiguous rhythm offers a musical joke to those trying to tap their toes. Strauss, a master of thematic manipulation, spun most of the melodic threads of Till from these two motives. Unlike the historical Till, who reportedly died in bed of the plague, Strauss sentenced his scoundrel to swing for his crimes amid threatening rolls on the drums and great blasts from the trombones. The closing pages, however, revive the impish specter of the physically departed Till, as if to say that his insouciant spirit remains always evergreen.

Pressed for a more complete description of Till’s progress as depicted by the music, Strauss jotted the following notes in the score of the music critic Wilhelm Mauke: “Once upon a time there was a Volksnarr [‘people’s fool’ or ‘jester’]; named Till Eulenspiegel; He was an awful hobgoblin; Off for New Pranks; Just wait, you hypocrites! Hop! On horseback into the midst of the marketwomen; With seven-league boots he lights out; Hidden in a Mouse-hole; Disguised as a Pastor, he drips with unction and morals; Yet out of his big toe peeps the Rogue; But before he gets through he nevertheless has qualms because of his having mocked religion; Till as cavalier pays court to pretty girls; She has really made an impression on him; He courts her; a kind refusal is still a refusal; Till departs furious; He swears vengeance on all mankind; Philistine motive; After he has propounded to the Philistines a few amazing theses he leaves them in astonishment to their fate; Great grimaces from afar; Till’s street tune; The court of Justice; He still whistles to himself indifferently; Up the Ladder! There he swings; He gasps for air, a last convulsion; The mortal part of Till is no more.” It is not necessary to follow this précis point by point as the music unfolds. It is meant only to give an idea of the escapades that Till undertakes, and Strauss’ sparkling, evocative music allows listeners to create their own adventures for the immortal rogue.

Of this work, the composer’s favorite among his tone poems, George R. Marek wrote, “I believe Till to be an altogether brilliant composition enriching music by one of its comparatively few successful humorous works It is melodiously easy and charming…. The design, which is in rondo form, returning at its end to its beginning, is as right as a ring. The poem is not too long and not too short. Its episodes are varied and consistently entertaining. In a word, Till is a heartwarming and happy masterpiece.”

 

 

Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, Op. 23a (1946)

Samuel Barber (1910-1981)

Samuel Barber had throughout his life a deep love of great literature — a love which had a strong impact on his creative work. His first important composition, written when he was only 22 and just graduating from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, was the sparkling Overture to “The School for Scandal,” “suggested by,” according to the composer, Sheridan’s comedy. His catalog also holds compositions inspired by the writings of Matthew Arnold, Shelley, James Agee, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and A.E. Housman. When he received a commission from the Ditson Fund of Columbia University immediately after World War II to create a ballet for Martha Graham, his thoughts turned to one of the most enduring and powerful stories of world literature, that of Medea, who killed her own children to spite her adulterous husband, Jason. According to a note in the score of the suite which Barber derived from the complete ballet, “Neither Miss Graham nor the composer wished to use the Medea-Jason legend literally in the ballet. These mythical figures served rather to project states of jealousy and vengeance which are timeless. The choreography and music were conceived, as it were, on two time levels, the ancient-mythical and the contemporary. Medea and Jason first appear as godlike, superhuman figures of the Greek tragedy. As the tension and conflict between them increase, they step out of their legendary roles from time to time and become modern man and woman, caught in the nets of jealousy and destructive love; and at the end resume their mythical quality. In both dancing and music, archaic idioms are used. Medea, in her final scene after the dénouement, becomes once more the descendant of the sun.”

Miss Graham’s company provided the following synopsis of the ballet’s action for its early performances: “In Greek mythology, Medea was the Princess of Colchis and renowned as a sorceress. She fled from her home with the hero Jason to Corinth and lived with him there and bore his children. But Jason was ambitious and when he was offered the hand of the Princess of Corinth in marriage, he abandoned Medea. Maddened by jealousy, Medea sent the Princess as a wedding gift a poisoned robe which killed her when she put it on. Then Medea destroyed her own children and left Corinth in a chariot drawn by dragons. The action is focused directly upon the central theme of the myth: the terrible destructiveness of jealousy and of alliance with the dark powers of humanity as symbolized by magic.”

From the ballet’s complete score, Barber derived a one-movement tone poem, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, which treats the emotional and musical themes associated with the title character. (In 1973, the composer requested that the title be changed to Medea’s Dance of Vengeance.) The work is disposed along a continuously accumulating line of tension, which the composer described as follows: “Tracing her emotions from her tender feelings toward her children, through her mounting suspicions and anguish at her husband’s betrayal and her decision to avenge herself, the piece increases in intensity to close in the frenzied Dance of Vengeance of Medea, the Sorceress descended from the Sun God.”

 

The Planets, Op. 32 (1914-1917)

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

From early in his life, Gustav Holst combined a mystical turn of mind with strong nationalistic sympathies, and much of his music shows an intriguing blend of no-nonsense British vigor and ethereal rumination. He was fascinated by Eastern religious literature, and undertook a study of Sanskrit so that he could translate hymns from the Rig Veda for himself in order to make the most appropriate musical settings for them. The Japanese Suite, the opera Savitri (meant to recreate the suspended stillness of Indian music), songs based on the poems of the New England Transcendentalists and other such visionary works are scattered among lusty pieces chock full of hearty folk songs and rousing choruses. Holst, however, took the trouble to note the difference between the Mystic and the Artist: “I suggest that the latter has the advantage. He has no need of speech; he has something at once more tangible and yet which belongs to eternity — that something which Artists call Form.” His dear friend and mutual critic, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, believed that “Holst’s music reaches into the unknown, but it never loses touch with humanity.” These two attractive, but seemingly opposed, characteristics — head in the clouds, feet on the ground — are abundantly manifest in The Planets.

Holst’s interest in writing a piece of music on the attributes of the astrological signs was apparently spurred by his visit in the spring of 1913 with the writer and avid star-gazer Clifford Bax, who noted that Holst was himself “a skilled reader of horoscopes.” (Imogen Holst suggested that one reason her father may have been attracted to composing such a work was because he was having difficulty at the time formulating structural plans for large-scale pieces, and a suite for orchestra seemed appropriate to his compositional needs.) Of the music’s inspiration, Holst noted, “As a rule I only study things which suggest music to me. That’s why I worried at Sanskrit. Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.” Despite his immediate attraction to the planets as the subject for a musical work, however, he took some time before beginning actual composition. He once wrote to William Gillies Whittaker, “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you,” and it was not until the summer of 1914, more than a full year after he had conceived the piece, that he could no longer resist the lure of The Planets.

“Once he had taken the underlying idea from astrology, he let the music have its way with him,” reported Imogen of her father’s writing The Planets. The composition of the work occupied him for over three years. Jupiter, Venus and Mars were written in 1914 (prophetically, Mars, the Bringer of War was completed only weeks before the assassination at Sarajevo precipitated the start of the First World War); Saturn, Uranus and Neptune followed in 1915, and Mercury a year after that. Except for Neptune, all the movements were originally written for two pianos rather than directly into orchestral score, probably because Holst was then having painful problems with his writing hand due to severe arthritis, and he needed to concentrate the physical effort of composition as much as possible. For the mystical Neptune movement, he considered the percussive sounds of the piano too harsh, and wrote it first as an organ piece. All seven movements were orchestrated in 1917 with the help of Nora Day and Vally Lasker, two of the composer’s fellow faculty members at St. Paul’s School in London, who wrote out the full score from Holst’s keyboard notations under his guidance. The finished work is superb testimony to Holst’s skill as an orchestrator, much of which was gained from his practical experience as a teacher and conductor, and also as a professional trombonist in several British orchestras, a vocation from which he was forced to retire in 1903 because of his arthritis.

The Planets had a complicated performance history when it was new. Holst was judged unfit for military service in the War because of his health, but he did manage to obtain a post with the YMCA as a music organizer among troops in the Near East. His overseas departure date was set too quickly to allow the new piece to be scheduled for performance in one of London’s regular concert series, so his friend Balfour Gardiner, realizing how eager Holst was to hear the work, underwrote a special private performance as a farewell gift. Holst and an invited audience attended the concert, conducted by Adrian Boult on September 29, 1918 in Queen’s Hall, London, only days before the composer sailed for Salonica and points beyond. On February 27, 1919, Boult led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a public performance of The Planets, but omitted Venus and Neptune, so the honor of the work’s first complete public performance fell to Albert Coates, who conducted the score in London on November 15, 1920. Interest in the work ran so high in America that the premiere in this country was given simultaneously in New York (Albert Coates) and Chicago (Frederick Stock) during the 1920-1921 season. The Planets has remained Holst’s most popular composition.

Holst gave the following explanation of The Planets for its first performances: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in a broad sense. For instance, Jupiter brings jollity in the normal sense, and also the more ceremonial kind of rejoicing associated with religious or national festivities. Saturn brings not only physical decay, but also a vision of fulfillment.”

The individual movements of The Planets employ a wide spectrum of musical styles in which the influences of Stravinsky, Dukas, Debussy and even Schoenberg may be discerned, but, according to Imogen, “The Planets is written in Holst’s own language.” It is a language of spectacular variety — a greater contrast than that between the first two movements is hard to imagine. The staggering hammerblows of Mars, the Bringer of War are followed by the sweet luminosity of Venus, the Bringer of Peace. Each of the remaining movements cuts as distinctive a figure as the first two. Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a nimble scherzo that seems, like the fast movements of Baroque music, to be a stream of notes spinning infinitely through the cosmos of which the composer has revealed only a small segment. Within Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity co-exist a boisterous Bacchanalian dance (“the most joyous jangle imaginable,” according to Richard Capell) and a striding hymn tune to which Elgar stood godfather. Hard upon Jupiter, which reportedly inspired the charwomen cleaning the hall during rehearsals for the premiere to toss away their mops and dance a little jig, follow the lugubrious solemnities of Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, the movement Holst declared to be his favorite piece in the suite. This music is invested with a weighty, Mahlerian seriousness that recalls Das Lied von der Erde. Uranus, the Magician is shown as a rather portly prestidigitator who includes perhaps more broad humor than baffling legerdemain in his act. The haunting finale, Neptune, the Mystic, springs from the misty domain of Debussy’s Nocturnes, but possesses an even wispier, more diaphanous orchestral sonority, with the disembodied siren song of the female chorus floating away to inaudibility among the spheres at its close. Wrote Richard Capell of this bewitching, inconclusive ending, “[Neptune] swims in mystery, less seen than guessed at, on the far confines of our system. What is to be made of it, this ultimate unknown, by our peering into the dark sky? Holst is not able to proclaim a conventional apotheosis. The dark remains dark, the question is left open …”

Of Holst’s masterful astrological suite, Gerald Abraham wrote, “Each movement is a completely different experience; it is not merely a play on words to say that each transports one to a different planet, a different air. Air — that is the common element to all The Planets; a sense of vast timeless space, of air exceedingly rare and purified.” To which James Lyons added, “Only a creative personality of boundless imagination, fettered by the discipline reserved for the master craftsman, could have conceived such magical spheres of music.”

.
©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodd

About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

February 2020 Masterworks

Porgy and Bess, Opera in Three Acts (1934-1935)

Music by George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Libretto by DuBose Heyward (1885-1940)

Lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983)

The Rhapsody in Blue of 1924 marked George Gershwin’s debut as a serious composer. A year later, DuBose Heyward, a poet and writer from Charleston, South Carolina, published a novel titled Porgy loosely based on a local character called “Goat Sammy,” a Negro cripple who got about town in a goat cart. Goat Sammy was known to many as a beggar on the city’s streets, but Heyward was struck by a news article in 1924 reporting that the man had been arrested on a charge of aggravated assault in a crime of passion. Heyward thought it extraordinary that “the object of public charity by day, had a private life of his own by night. It was a tempestuous life, and in it were the seeds of human struggle that make for drama.” Porgy became a best-seller. Gershwin read the book in September 1926, and he was so excited by its potential for the musical stage that he immediately dashed off a letter to Heyward suggesting that they collaborate on turning it into an opera. The writer responded eagerly and positively to Gershwin’s suggestion, but told him that he and his wife, Dorothy, were just then working the novel into a play, and that any operatic adaptation would have to wait until their drama had been staged. A delay was inevitable on Gershwin’s side anyway because he was just then reaching the pinnacle of his success as a Broadway and concert composer, and the demand for his music and shows was continuous — Oh, Kay!, both versions of Strike Up the Band, Funny Face, Rosalie, Treasure Girl, Show Girl, Girl Crazy and Of Thee I Sing, as well as the Piano Preludes, An American in Paris, the Second Rhapsody and the Cuban Overture all appeared within the next five years. The Heywards’ Porgy was produced by the Theatre Guild in 1927, and became one of the dramatic hits of the Broadway season.

In March 1932, Gershwin wrote to Heyward expressing his interest in reviving the plans for a Porgy opera. Heyward, who hoped that a collaboration with America’s most popular composer would afford some relief from the financial difficulties he was experiencing in those early Depression years, was eager to move ahead with the project, but he was disappointed to learn that Gershwin could not begin work until at least January of the next year. A further difficulty arose in September 1932 when Al Jolson told Heyward that he wanted to play Porgy in blackface in a musical version created for him by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Kern and Hammerstein were soon engaged on other projects, however, and Jolson’s plan fell through. Finally, on October 26, 1933, seven years after he had first proposed the idea to Heyward, Gershwin signed a contract with the Theatre Guild to compose the music for an opera based on Porgy.

Heyward had already been working for some time on ideas for the libretto of Porgy and Bess. (The expanded title was used to distinguish the opera from the stage play.) From his home in Charleston, where he preferred to write, he started sending scenes to Gershwin in New York in November 1933. Gershwin, however, who had just committed to do a grueling 28-day/28-concert/28-city tour in January and February celebrating the tenth anniversary of the premiere of his Rhapsody in Blue, had little time for composition just then, and he told Heyward he could not begin serious work until February, though he did sketch the melody for Summertime during a visit with friends in Palm Beach in December. Heyward invited the composer to come to Charleston after the tour, but Gershwin had contracted to do a twice-weekly radio broadcast, and the composer convinced the librettist to visit him in New York in April instead. Heyward worked with George and his brother, Ira, who had agreed to help with the lyrics, for about a month before returning home.

When his radio series finished in June, Gershwin was at last able to travel to Charleston to see the people and scenes which were the subjects of Porgy and Bess. He rented a ramshackle cottage on Folly Island, a small barrier island ten miles from Charleston, and was joined a few days later by the Heywards. Gershwin was thoroughly immersed in the project by that time, and DuBose later wrote, “James Island with its large population of Gullah Negroes lay adjacent, and furnished us with … an inexhaustible source of folk material. But the most interesting discovery to me, as we sat listening to their spirituals, or watched a group shuffling before a cabin or country store, was that to George it was more like a homecoming than an exploration.” At a local prayer meeting, Gershwin was fascinated by an energetic kind of unaccompanied vocal music known as “shouting,” which Heyward described as being based on “a complicated rhythmic pattern beaten out by feet and hands … indubitably an African survival.” Gershwin joined the “shout” and “stole the show from their champion ‘shouter,’” much to the amusement of the congregation. Though the visit was important for establishing the venue and some aspects of the opera’s musical style, Gershwin, occupied in that vacation season with swimming, sunning and socializing, actually got little work done on Folly Island.

Gershwin returned to New York on July 22nd, and he worked for the next year on Porgy — the orchestration, entirely his own, was not completed until September 2, 1935, just four weeks before the opening in Boston. The Theatre Guild had begun preparations for the premiere by late 1934, when Rouben Mamoulian, who directed the stage version of Porgy, was engaged as producer and Todd Duncan, a voice teacher at Howard University in Washington, D.C., accepted the title role. Anne Brown, a 20-year-old student at Juilliard, was cast as Bess, Warren Coleman as Crown and John W. Bubbles as Sportin’ Life. Porgy and Bess was a great critical and public success in its out-of-town tryout at Boston’s Colonial Theatre beginning on September 30, 1935, but its running length of three hours and the difficulty of Porgy’s part necessitated extensive cuts and reworkings. By the New York premiere on October 10th, tremendous expectation had accumulated around Gershwin’s adventurous work (the major dailies sent both their drama and music critics to the Alvin Theatre that evening), but, despite an enthusiastic reception from the audience, the reviews were mixed. Ticket sales declined, and Porgy and Bess closed in New York after just 124 performances. However, its great songs — Summertime; It Ain’t Necessarily So; I Got Plenty o’ Nothing; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York and a half-dozen others — immediately became standards of the pop repertory, and maintained the show’s reputation until 1942, when a new Broadway production had a longer run than had any other revival to that time. An American company toured with the show throughout Western and Eastern Europe, the Near East, Mexico and South America continuously from 1952 to 1956; in February 1955, the troupe appeared at La Scala in Milan, making Porgy and Bess the first opera by a native American composer heard in that hallowed auditorium. In 1975, Gershwin’s original score, with its recitatives and cuts completely restored, was given in a concert performance and recorded by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra; this complete version was staged a year later by the Houston Grand Opera Company, taken on tour and brought successfully to New York. In 1985, a full half-century after it was premiered, Porgy and Bess was finally given the ultimate establishment imprimatur when it was first staged at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Porgy and Bess is set in the 1930s in Catfish Row, a Negro tenement in Charleston. The curtain rises on Clara singing a lullaby (Summertime) to her child. Clara’s husband, the fisherman Jake, tries his own lullaby (A Woman Is a Sometime Thing). Crown quarrels with Robbins during a crap game, kills him and escapes. Robbins is mourned by his wife, Serena (My Man’s Gone Now). Crown’s girl, Bess, finds refuge with the cripple, Porgy, who loves her devotedly. They sing of their happiness (I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’ and Bess, You Is My Woman Now). During a picnic on Kittiwah Island, Sportin’ Life, the local dope peddler, describes his cynical attitude toward religion (It Ain’t Necessarily So). Crown, who has been hiding on the island, confronts Bess and persuades her to stay with him. Having fallen sick, she returns to Porgy, who nurses her back to health. They reassure each other of their love (I Loves You, Porgy). During a storm, Crown returns to Catfish Row. Porgy strangles his rival. The police suspect Porgy, and arrest him. Sportin’ Life tempts Bess to accompany him to New York with a package of his “happy dust” (There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York). Released from jail a few days later, Porgy finds Bess gone. Undaunted, he sets off in his goat cart to follow her (Oh, Lawd, I’m On My Way).

Gershwin’s music drama about the crippled Negro, Porgy, and his determined love for Bess is among the most popular and widely performed of all American operas. “This, Gershwin’s last serious work,” wrote David Ewen, “possesses that richness, vitality and variety of melody, that vigor of rhythm, that spontaneity and freshness we associate with Gershwin’s best music. Of all Gershwin’s serious works, it is the only one to reveal compassion, humanity and a profound dramatic instinct. Its roots are in the soil of the Negro people, whom it interprets with humor, tragedy, penetrating characterizations, dramatic power and sympathy.” Beside its musical significance, Porgy and Bess also occupies an important place in the social evolution of our land — its premieres in Charleston, South Carolina, where the story is set, and Washington, D.C. were desegregated both on the stage and in the audience for the first time in the histories of those cities. Gershwin, who spent an entire summer in a Negro community near Charleston collecting material and ideas for his work, would have been proud to know that Porgy and Bess was the cause for such a significant step in our national life.

©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

March 2020 Masterworks

Hungarian Sketches, Sz. 97 (composed for piano 1908-1911, orchestrated 1931)

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

Around 1905, during the difficult, poverty-ridden years after he completed his studies at the Liszt Conservatory in Budapest, Bartók was invited by a friend to spend a few days in the country. On the trip, he chanced to overhear one of the servant girls singing a strange and intriguing song while going about her chores. He asked her about the melody and was told that the girl’s mother had taught it to her, as her grandmother had passed it on a generation before, and that there were many more such songs. Bartók encouraged her to sing the others that she knew, and he soon realized that this sturdy folk music was little related to the slick Gypsy airs and dances of the city cafés that had long passed for indigenous Hungarian music. He determined that he would discover all he could about the peasant music of his own and neighboring lands, and much of the rest of his life was given to collecting, cataloging and evaluating this vast heritage. American musicologist Milton Cross characterized the music that Bartók discovered: “The melody was severe, patterned after the rise and ebb, the inflection, of Hungarian speech; the rhythms were irregular; the tonality reached back to the modes of the church. It was savage music: intense, passionate, strong and uninhibited. Nothing quite like it could be found anywhere else.” Among the earliest of Bartók’s music decisively influenced by his ethnomusicological studies were are series of small piano pieces that he wrote beginning around 1908. Though most of these miniatures were original with him, they were modeled on the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic characteristics of the thousands of Magyar, Slovak, Transylvanian, Rumanian, Arabic and other folk tunes he collected.

In the summer of 1931, Bartók accepted an offer to teach at a summer music school for Austrian and American students in the resort village of Mondsee, near Salzburg in the Austrian Salzkammergut. When he arrived at Mondsee, however, he found that the arrangements had been poorly made, and only one of his eight promised students had matriculated. A few other students appeared during the first week, but his teaching occupied only about eight hours a week, and the pay was good (“today, with beautiful punctuality, they gave me a check for 496 Austrian schillings,” he reported in a letter to his mother), so he felt free to spend some time on his own work. The resulting composition was a delightful suite of five of his early, folk-influenced piano pieces arranged for orchestra — the Hungarian Sketches. He thought that such a piece, in a more popular idiom than most of his recent works, would find a ready audience and many performances; he even admitted writing the Sketches “on account of money,” though this statement does nothing to diminish this music’s charm, ingenuity or mastery of idiom.

The first of the Hungarian Sketches (Evening in the Village), based on one of the Ten Easy Pieces of 1908, is a nostalgic little song with a recurring refrain first played by the clarinet. The suitably gruff and ponderous Bear Dance is from the same set of piano pieces. Melody (the second of the Four Dirges from 1909) is a plaintive strain initiated by the strings before being taken over by the woodwinds. Slightly Tipsy, from the 1911 Three Burlesques, is a vivid picture of a dipsomaniacal promenade. The closing Swineherds Dance (one of the series For Children from 1908-1909) is fast and festive.

Though the Hungarian Sketches are light and diverting in nature, Bartók may have had in mind for them, and for his other folk-inspired compositions, a grander purpose. In 1931, at just the time that he was arranging these pieces for orchestra, he wrote to Ion Busitia, “My true guiding idea, which has possessed me completely ever since I began to compose, is that of the brotherhood of peoples, of their brotherhood despite all war, all conflict…. That is why I do not repulse any influence, whether its source be Slovak, Rumanian, Arab, or some other, provided this source be pure, fresh, and healthy!”

 

 

Flute Concerto (2013)

Kevin Puts (born in 1972)

Kevin Puts, born on January 3, 1972 in St. Louis, received his bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music (1994), his master’s degree from Yale (1996), and his doctorate from Eastman (1999); his composition teachers have included Jacob Druckman, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, Samuel Adler and David Burge. He also participated in the 1996 Tanglewood Festival Fellowship Program, where he worked with Bernard Rands and William Bolcom. Puts taught at the University of Texas at Austin from 1999 until the fall of 2006, when he joined the faculty of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore; he is also Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute. Kevin Puts has accumulated an impressive array of distinctions: the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his acclaimed opera Silent Night, based on the 2005 French film Joyeux Nöel and premiered by Minnesota Opera in November 2012; from 1996 to 1999, he served concurrently as Composer-in-Residence with the California Symphony (which premiered three of his works) and Young Concert Artists, Inc. in New York; he has received commissions from the National Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, Minnesota Orchestra, Pacific Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Aspen Music Festival, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, Eroica Trio, Ying Quartet and other noted ensembles and organizations; he was the first undergraduate to be awarded the Charles Ives Scholarship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters; he has received grants and fellowships from BMI, ASCAP, Tanglewood, the Hanson Institute for American Music and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the Benjamin H. Danks Award for Excellence in Orchestral Composition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Barlow International Prize for Orchestral Music; and in 2007 he was Composer-in-Residence with both the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival and the Forth Worth Symphony. His most recent opera is The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, whose libretto Mark Campbell based on the Gothic novel by Peter Ackroyd, which premiered by Philadelphia Opera in September 2017.

Puts wrote that his Flute Concerto, composed in 2013 for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, “opens with a melody I have had swimming around in my head for more than half a lifetime now, something I began singing to myself in college and for which I had never found appropriate context. Built on a simple three-note motive, the theme is lyrical and easy to remember but somewhat irregular rhythmically at the same time.

“The second movement was written during a period in which I was rather obsessed with the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467, often referred to as the ‘Elvira Madigan Concerto’ due to its use in the eponymously titled film of the 1970s. What Mozart could evoke with a major chord repeated in triplets, a simple bass-line played pizzicato, and a melody floating above is mind-boggling and humbling to me. Nonetheless, I decided to enter into this hallowed environment, and, in a sense, to speak from within it in my own voice.

“Rhythm drives the third movement, whose main ideas are drawn from the main theme of the first movement and culminate in a highly energetic dialogue between the soloist and a small, contrapuntal band of winds, brass and percussion.”

 

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique” (1893)

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky died in 1893, at the age of only 53. His death was long attributed to the accidental drinking of a glass of unboiled water during a cholera outbreak, but that theory has been questioned in recent years with the alternate explanation that he was forced to take his own life because of a homosexual liaison with the underage son of a noble family. Though the manner of Tchaikovsky’s death is incidental to the place of his Sixth Symphony in music history, the fact of it is not.

Tchaikovsky conducted his B minor Symphony for the first time only a week before his death. It was given a cool reception by musicians and public, and his frustration was multiplied when discussion of the work was avoided by the guests at a dinner party following the concert. Three days later, however, his mood seemed brighter and he told a friend that he was not yet ready to be snatched off by death, “that snubbed-nose horror. I feel that I shall live a long time.” He was wrong. The evidence of the manner of his death is not conclusive, but what is certain is the overwhelming grief and sense of loss felt by music lovers in Russia and abroad as the news of his passing spread. Memorial concerts were planned. One of the first was in St. Petersburg on November 18th, only twelve days after he died. Eduard Napravnik conducted the Sixth Symphony on that occasion, and it was a resounding success. The “Pathétique” was wafted by the winds of sorrow across the musical world, and became — and remains — one of the most popular symphonies ever written, the quintessential expression of tragedy in music.

In examining the Sixth Symphony, whether as performer or listener, care must be taken not to allow pathos to descend into bathos. It is virtually certain that Tchaikovsky was not anticipating his own death in this work. For most of 1893, his health and spirits were good, he was enjoying an international success unprecedented for a Russian composer, and work on the new Symphony was going well. He wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davidov in February that he was composing “with such ardor that in less than four days I have completed the first movement, while the remainder is clearly outlined in my head.” Tchaikovsky was pleased with the finished work. “I give you my word of honor that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy, in the knowledge that I have written a good piece,” he told his publisher, Jurgenson, as soon as he had finished the score in August. The somber message of the music was, therefore, seems not to have been a reflection of the moods and events of Tchaikovsky’s last months.

The music of the “Pathétique” is a distillation of the strong residual strain of melancholy in Tchaikovsky’s personality rather than a mirror of his daily feelings and thoughts. Though he admitted there was a program for the Symphony, he refused to reveal it. “Let him guess it who can,” he told Vladimir Davidov. A cryptic note discovered years later among his sketches suggests that the first movement was “all impulsive passion; the second, love; the third, disappointments; the fourth, death — the result of collapse.” It is not clear, however, whether this précis applied to the finished version of the work, or was merely a preliminary, perhaps never even realized, plan. That Tchaikovsky at one point considered the title “Tragic” for the score gives sufficient indication of its prevailing emotional content.

The title “Pathétique” was suggested to Tchaikovsky by his elder brother, Modeste. In his biography of Peter, Modeste recalled that they were sitting around a tea table one evening after the premiere, and the composer was unable to settle on an appropriate designation for the work before sending it to the publisher. The sobriquet “Pathétique” popped into Modeste’s mind, and Tchaikovsky pounced on it immediately: “Splendid, Modi, bravo. ‘Pathétique’ it shall be.” This title has always been applied to the Symphony, though the original Russian word carries a meaning closer to “passionate” or “emotional” than to the English “pathetic.”

The Symphony opens with a slow introduction dominated by the sepulchral intonation of the bassoon, whose melody, in a faster tempo, becomes the impetuous first theme of the exposition. Additional instruments are drawn into the symphonic argument until the brasses arrive to crown the movement’s first climax. The tension subsides into silence before the yearning second theme appears, “like a recollection of happiness in time of pain,” according to American musicologist Edward Downes. The tempestuous development section, intricate, brilliant and the most masterful thematic manipulation in Tchaikovsky’s output, is launched by a mighty blast from the full orchestra. The recapitulation is more condensed, vibrantly scored and intense in emotion than the exposition. The major tonality achieved with the second theme is maintained until the hymnal end of the movement.

Tchaikovsky referred to the second movement as a scherzo, though its 5/4 meter gives it more the feeling of a waltz with a limp. This music’s rhythmic novelty must have been remarkable in 1893, and the distinguished Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick even suggested that it should be changed to 6/8 to avoid annoyance to performers and listeners. Charles O’Connell, however, saw the irregular meter as essential to the movement’s effect, “as if its gaiety were constantly under constraint; directed, not by careless joy, but by a determination to be joyful.”

The third movement is a boisterous march whose brilliant surface may conceal a deeper meaning. Tchaikovsky’s biographer John Warrack wrote, “On the face of it, this is a sprightly march; yet it is barren, constructed out of bleak intervals, and for all the merriness of its manner, essentially empty, with a coldness at its heart.”

The tragedy of the finale is apparent immediately at the outset in its somber contrast to the whirling explosion of sound that ends the third movement. A profound emptiness pervades the finale, which maintains its slow tempo and mood of despair throughout. Banished completely are the joy and affirmation of the traditional symphonic finale, here replaced by a new emotional and structural concept that opened important expressive possibilities for 20th-century composers. Olin Downes dubbed this movement “a dirge,” and, just as there is no certainty about what happens to the soul when the funeral procession ends, so Tchaikovsky here leaves the question of existence forever hanging, unanswered, embodied in the mysterious, dying close of the Symphony.

©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

April 2020 Masterworks

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (1806)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

 

In 1794, two years after he moved to Vienna from Bonn, Beethoven attended a concert by an Austrian violin prodigy named Franz Clement. To Clement, then fourteen years old, the young composer wrote, “Dear Clement! Go forth on the way which you hitherto have travelled so beautifully, so magnificently. Nature and art vie with each other in making you a great artist. Follow both and, never fear, you will reach the great — the greatest — goal possible to an artist here on earth. All wishes for your happiness, dear youth; and return soon, that I may again hear your dear, magnificent playing. Entirely your friend, L. v. Beethoven.”

Beethoven’s wish was soon granted. Clement was appointed conductor and concertmaster of the Theater-an-der-Wien in Vienna in 1802, where he was closely associated with Beethoven in the production of Fidelio and as the conductor of the premiere of the Third Symphony. Clement, highly esteemed by his contemporaries as a violinist, musician and composer for his instrument, was also noted for his fabulous memory. One tale relates that Clement, after participating in a single performance of Haydn’s The Creation, wrote out a score for the entire work from memory, which he then submitted to the composer for corrections. So few were needed that the incredulous Haydn was convinced Clement had copied the score, though that was quite impossible since it had not yet been published. Of Clement’s style of violin performance, Boris Schwarz wrote, “His playing was graceful rather than vigorous, his tone small but expressive, and he possessed unfailing assurance and purity in high positions and exposed entrances.” It was for Clement that Beethoven produced his only Violin Concerto.

The Violin Concerto was written during the most productive period of Beethoven’s life: the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Coriolan Overture, the three Op. 59 Quartets, and numerous other works clustered within a few months of its composition in 1806. So busy was Beethoven that he was able to finish the Concerto only on the day of the concert, making orchestral rehearsals for the premiere impossible. Clement, who had probably been following the progress of the work as Beethoven was composing it, must have carried the day, however, because the concert proved to be at least a partial success. Johann Nepomuk Möser provided a review of the performance that was typical of many notices Beethoven received during his lifetime: “The judgment of connoisseurs about Beethoven’s music is unanimous; they acknowledge some beautiful passages in it, but they admit that the work frequently seems to lack coherence and that the endless repetitions of some trite passages tend to be tiring…. There is some fear that Beethoven, by persisting in this, will do serious harm to himself and to the public…. On the whole,” Möser added, “the audience liked this concerto and Clement’s fantasias very much.” The “fantasias” put on display by Clement that evening were his own works, and probably accounted in no small part for the audience’s good response to the concert. Clement was apparently as adept a showman as he was a virtuoso, and he played these pieces, which he programmed between the first two movements of Beethoven’s Concerto, with the instrument turned upside-down, virtually assuring a success. The Viennese public knew a master when they saw one.

Such topsy-turvy histrionics were an accepted (and expected) facet of early 19th-century concert life, and Clement seems, in sum, to have been a fine musician. Certainly the Concerto that he inspired from Beethoven, one of that master’s most endearingly beautiful compositions, is unsurpassed by any other in the entire literature for the violin. Of the seemingly contradictory qualities of grandeur and intimacy in this work, Sir Donald Tovey commented, “Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is gigantic, one of the most spacious concertos ever written, but so quiet that when it was a novelty most people complained quite as much of its insignificance as of its length. All its most famous strokes of genius are not only mysteriously quiet, but mysterious in radiantly happy surroundings. The whole gigantic scheme is serene.” It is not surprising that such an introspective work failed to gain immediate popularity in the age of flamboyant virtuosity that was the 19th-century concert circuit. The Concerto enjoyed very few hearings until another child prodigy, Joseph Joachim, at the age of thirteen, took it up in 1844, and included it in his programs all over Europe. To give it yet another lease on life, Muzio Clementi, the piano virtuoso and music publisher, convinced Beethoven to arrange the score as a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. The most interesting aspect of this transcription was Beethoven’s inclusion of a kettledrum accompaniment for one of the cadenzas.

The sweet, lyrical nature and wide compass of the solo part of this Concerto were influenced by the polished style of Clement’s playing. The five soft taps on the timpani that open the work not only serve to establish the key and the rhythm of the movement, but also recur as a unifying phrase throughout. The main theme is introduced in the second measure by the woodwinds in a chorale-like setting that emphasizes the smooth contours of this lovely melody. A transition, with rising scales in the winds and quicker rhythmic figures in the strings, accumulates a certain intensity before it quiets to usher in the second theme, another legato strophe entrusted to the woodwinds. Immediately after its entry, the violin soars into its highest register, where it presents a touching obbligato spun around the main thematic material of the orchestral introduction. The development section is largely given over to wide-ranging figurations for the soloist. The recapitulation begins with a recall of the five drum strokes of the opening, here spread across the full orchestra sounding in unison. The themes from the exposition return with more elaborate embellishment from the soloist. Following the cadenza, the second theme serves as a coda.

“In the slow movement,” wrote Tovey, “we have one of the cases of sublime inaction achieved by Beethoven and by no one else except in certain lyrics and masterpieces of choral music.” The comparison to vocal music is certainly appropriate for this hymnal movement. Though it is technically a theme and variations, it seems less like some earth-bound form than it does a floating constellation of ethereal tones, polished and hung against a velvet night sky with infinite care and flawless precision. Music of such limited dramatic contrast cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion in this context, and so here it leads without pause into the vivacious rondo-finale. The solo violin trots out the principal theme before it is taken over by the full orchestra. This jaunty tune returns three times, the last appearance forming a large coda. The intervening episodes allow for a flashing virtuoso display from the soloist and even a touch of melancholy in one of the few minor-mode sections of the Concerto.

 

 

Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, “Pastoral” (1807-1808)

Ludwig van Beethoven

 

There is a fine and often fluid line that separates program and absolute music. Usually composers intend their work to be heard either with some extra-musical reference or as a universe unto itself, but Beethoven tried to link both worlds in his “Pastoral” Symphony. This work, with its birdcalls and its horncalls, its thunder, wind and rain, its peasant dances and babbling brooks, is decidedly and lovably programmatic. Yet the composer insisted that the Symphony is “more an expression of feeling than painting” — that it is more pure, abstract emotion than naïve imitations of various familiar country noises. It is, in truth, both.

The extra-musical associations of the “Pastoral” Symphony run far deeper than its imitations of nightingales and rainstorms. Actually, there are at least three layers of “meaning” here. The first and most obvious of these three is the evocation of natural noises, but this was only a point of departure for Beethoven into the second degree of reference in this work, since these woodland sounds were simply the external manifestations of what was, for him, a much deeper reality: that God was to be found in every tree, in every brook; indeed, that God and Nature are, if not the same, certainly indivisible. It was into this pantheistic philosophy that Beethoven retreated when his deafness became profound. As he grew increasingly alienated from the world of men, he sought and found refuge in Nature. “How happy I am to be able to wander among the bushes and grass, under trees and over rocks; no man can love the country as I love it,” he rejoiced. He sought to voice his essential belief in the divinity of Nature in this Sixth Symphony, just as he sought in the Ninth Symphony to express another of his fundamental ideas: the hope for universal brotherhood. The second layer of meaning in this work is, in the words of Basil Lam, “not that it is merely descriptive, but, in the broadest sense, religious.”

The third plane on which the “Pastoral” Symphony exists is heavily influenced by the other two. This third layer, the purely musical, reflects the stability, the calm and the sense of the infinite that Beethoven perceived in Nature. “Oh, the sweet stillness of the woods!” he wrote. The style in which he chose to cast this work has about it a certain noble simplicity, an uncluttered directness of expression that implies the balm that Nature must have been for the composer’s troubled soul. Missing from the Sixth Symphony are the dramatic contrasts and profound emotional journeys of the contemporaneous Symphony No. 5. Instead, each movement combines a singularity of mood with a deep, quiet spiritual satisfaction to create a sense of massive grandeur, of infinite continuity, as though Beethoven had unearthed music that had always existed as part of the rocks and hills he loved so much. It is from this deep core of the music that Beethoven derived the unusual formal device of a fifth movement, a departure from the four-movement symphonic standard that had been the norm since Haydn’s early works of nearly a half-century earlier. This inserted movement depicts a storm through the thunderous rumblings of the basses and timpani, the lightning flashes of the piccolo and the gusts of the trombones. More than simply a contrast to the surrounding movements, this section serves as a foil to set the tranquility of the rest of the Symphony into bold relief. “The Darkness Declares the Glory of the Light” has here become music. The “Pastoral” Symphony, the most gentle and child-like work that Beethoven ever composed, grants us not only a deeper understanding of the great composer, but also, through his vision, a heightened awareness of ourselves and the world around us.

 

* * *

 

Beethoven gave each of the five movements of the “Pastoral” Symphony a title describing its general character. The first movement, filled with verdant sweetness and effusive good humor, is headed The Awakening of Cheerful Feelings at the Arrival in the Country. The violins present a simple theme which pauses briefly after only four measures, as though the composer were alighting from a coach and taking a deep breath of the sparkling, fragrant air before beginning his brisk walk along a shaded path. The melody grows more vigorous before it quiets to lead almost imperceptibly to the second theme, a descending motive played by violins over a rustling string accompaniment. Again, the spirits swell and then relax before the main theme returns to occupy most of the development. To conclude the first movement, the recapitulation returns the themes of the exposition in more richly orchestrated settings, a common practice in the 19th-century symphony. It is worth noting that the textural figuration Beethoven supplied for this movement, and for most of this Symphony, contributes an aura of relaxed yet constant motion to the music. Indeed, the “background” throughout this Symphony is of unfailing interest and is as important as the themes in defining the sylvan character of the music. There is a fascination in listening to these inner voices, of perceiving the multiple planes of the texture, an experience comparable in the visual world to discerning the play of light and shade in the layers of foliage of a great tree or spying a darting fish beneath the shimmering surface of a rushing stream. There is even one extended section in the finale (noted below) where Beethoven dispensed with the “melody” completely and continued with only the “accompaniment.”

The second movement, Scene at the Brook, continues the mood and undulant figuration of the preceding movement. The music of this movement is almost entirely without chromatic harmony, and exudes an air of tranquility amid pleasing activity. The form is a sonata-allegro whose opening theme starts with a fragmentary idea in the first violins above a rich accompaniment. The second theme begins with a descending motion, like that of the first movement, but then turns back upward to form an inverted arch. A full development section utilizing the main theme follows. The recapitulation recalls the earlier themes with enriched orchestration, and leads to a most remarkable coda. In the closing pages of this movement, the rustling accompaniment ceases while all Nature seems to hold its breath to listen to the songs of three birds — the nightingale, the dove and the cuckoo. Twice this tiny avian concert is performed before the movement comes quietly to its close. When later Romantic composers sought stylistic and formal models for their works it was to Beethoven that they turned, and when program music was the subject, this coda was their object.

Beethoven titled the scherzo Merry Gathering of the Peasants, and filled the music with a rustic bumptiousness and simple humor that recall a hearty if somewhat ungainly country dance. The trio shifts to duple meter for a stomping dance before the scherzo returns. The festivity is halted in mid-step by the distant thunder of a Storm, portrayed by the rumblings of the low strings. Beethoven built a convincing storm scene here through the tempestuous use of the tonal and timbral resources of the orchestra that stands in bold contrast to the surrounding movements of this Symphony. As the storm passes away over the horizon, the silvery voice of the flute leads directly into the finale, Shepherd’s Song: Joyful, Thankful Feelings after the Storm. The clarinet and then the horn sing the unpretentious melody of the shepherd, which returns, rondo-fashion, to support the form of the movement. It is at the expected third hearing of this theme that the melody is deleted, leaving only the luxuriant accompaniment to furnish the background for imagining the rustic tune. The mood of well-being and contented satisfaction continues to the end of this wonderful work.

Hector Berlioz, writing with his customary Romantic effulgence, had the following to say of the “Pastoral” Symphony: “Ancient poems, however beautiful and admired they may be, pale into insignificance when compared with this marvel of music. This great poem of Beethoven — these long phrases so richly colored — these living pictures — these perfumes — that light — that eloquent silence — that vast horizon — these enchanted nooks secreted in the woods — those golden harvests — those rose-tinted clouds like wandering flocks on the surface of the sky — that immense plain seeming to slumber under the rays of the midday sun…. Yes, great and adored poets, you are conquered: Inclyte sed victi [‘You are glorious but vanquished’].”

©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

About the Music by Dr. Richard E. Rodda

May 2020 Masterworks

Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a (1873)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

For a composer who occupies such a preeminent position in the world’s orchestral concert halls, it took Brahms some time to find his métier. His first work with orchestra, the stormy D minor Piano Concerto of 1854, ran aground on the shoals of adverse criticism and audience bewilderment, and discouraged him from further attempts at a major orchestral composition for many years. (The charming Serenades in D major and A major date from 1857, but they did not broach the serious symphonic tradition of the masters which, as Brahms said of Beethoven, always hovered just over his shoulder.) The earliest sketches for the Symphony No. 1 date from 1855, but these lay dormant for years at a time. As Brahms neared his fortieth year he did not have a single work in the orchestral repertory.

For his conducting positions with various choral societies during the 1860s, Brahms produced a large number of vocal works, and some of the most important (German Requiem, Alto Rhapsody, Schicksalslied) were fitted with orchestral accompaniments that show Brahms’ growing ability to handle large instrumental forces. They bolstered his confidence as an orchestrator, but he was still reluctant to bring the First Symphony to conclusion. Another work, a smaller piece, was needed as a final confirmation that he was ready to stand on Beethoven’s plateau as a symphonist. He wrote that work — the Variations on a Theme of Haydn — and it turned out to be one of the greatest independent orchestral compositions of the 19th century.

The seed for the Haydn Variations was sown in November 1870 when Karl Ferdinand Pohl, librarian for Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, ran across some unpublished manuscripts in his research for a biography of Haydn. Pohl assumed that these works, a set of six Feldpartiten (open-air suites for wind instruments), were by Haydn, and, knowing of Brahms’ interest in old music, he invited the composer to have a look at the scores. Brahms was especially interested in a movement of the Partita in B-flat that took as its theme a melody labeled “Choral St. Antoni.” The idea for a set of variations based on this sturdy tune apparently sprang to his mind immediately, and he copied the theme into his notes before he left Pohl’s study. He did not begin actual composition of the work until more than two years later, however, but when he did, he produced it in two separate versions — the present one for orchestra and another, identical musically, for two pianos. The two were apparently written simultaneously, and he pointed out that one was not a transcription of the other, but that they were to be thought of as two independent works. The piano version was finished by August 1873, when he played it with Clara Schumann, and published in November. The premiere of the orchestral incarnation in November received enthusiastic acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and it marked the beginning of Brahms’ international reputation as an orchestral composer. During the next fifteen years, he produced all the symphonic works that continue to assure his name among the musical giants.

Though Brahms did not know it, the theme he copied out of Pohl’s manuscript was probably not by Haydn at all. Considerable musicological spelunking has been done to unearth the true source of the tune, but there is still no definitive explanation of its origin. The late H.C. Robbins Landon, who literally spent a lifetime in Haydn research, wrote that the whole series of works in the Partita manuscript “is spurious and … not one note was by Haydn. One of his students, perhaps Pleyel, was probably the real author.” It has been suggested that the melody was an old Austrian pilgrims’ song, though conclusive evidence has never been brought forth to support this theory. We may never know for sure.

The Haydn Variations consists of a theme followed by eight variations and a finale. The scoring of the theme for wind choir preserves the reedy timbre of the original Partita, which called for two oboes, three bassoons, two horns and serpent. (This last is an obsolete bass wind instrument so called because of its S-curve shape. A marvelous example exists in the collections of Yale University that has an elaborately painted snake’s head complete with a red, flapping, forked metal tongue that wags as the instrument is played. The hollow, breathy sound of this specimen makes it abundantly clear why the serpent fell into disuse.) To best appreciate the Haydn Variations, it is important to recognize the structure of its opening theme, with its irregular five-measure phrases and repeated sections. The eminent British musicologist Sir Donald Tovey made this point incisively: “In music, as in all art that moves in time, the listener should fix his attention on some element that pervades the whole, not upon some guess as to the course of events. In a set of classical variations the all-pervading element is the shape of the whole theme.” The eight variations that follow preserve the theme’s structure, though they vary greatly in mood: thoughtful, gentle, martial, even frankly sensual, this last being Brahms’ rarest musical emotion.

The finale is constructed as a passacaglia on a recurring five-measure ostinato derived from the bass supporting the theme. This fragment, repeated many times in the low strings before it migrates into the higher instruments, generates both an irresistible rhythmic motion and a spacious solidity as the finale progresses. It leads inexorably to the spine-tingling moment when (after a minor-mode episode) the original theme bursts forth triumphantly in the strings as the woodwinds strew it with ribbons of scales.

In writing of this magnificent score in his survey of Brahms’ orchestral music, John Horton paid its composer a compliment in which he would have taken the greatest pride: “The variations and finale incorporate almost every conceivable device of contrapuntal ingenuity, together with rhythms recalling the ‘proportions’ of 16th-century keyboard composers. Yet no work of its kind has ever sounded less pedantic, and one can only marvel how Brahms emulates and even surpasses Bach.”

 

Symphony No. 4, “Heichalos” (2017)

Jonathan Leshnoff (born in 1973)

Distinguished by The New York Times as “a leader of contemporary American lyricism,” composer Jonathan Leshnoff is renowned for his music’s striking harmonies, structural complexity, and powerful themes. The Baltimore-based composer’s works have been performed by more than 65 orchestras worldwide in hundreds of orchestral concerts. He has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the symphony orchestras of Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Kansas City, Nashville, and Pittsburgh. Leshnoff’s compositions have also been performed by classical music’s most celebrated artists, including Gil Shaham, Johannes Moser, Joyce Yang and, Manuel Barrueco.

Leshnoff has been ranked among the most performed living composers by American orchestras in recent seasons, and upcoming seasons are comparably active with musical activity and collaborations. Highlights for the 2018-2019 season include the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of Leshnoff’s Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of Leshnoff’s Suite for Cello, Strings, and Timpani featuring the eminent cellist Johannes Moser, and the start of a multi-year residency with the Fairfax Symphony. Orchestras from the Knoxville Symphony to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic also perform works from Leshnoff’s robust ouevre.

Leshnoff’s discography includes five albums to date, with four on the Naxos American Classics label. In May 2019, Naxos released an all-Leshnoff recording featuring the Nashville Symphony performing his popular concert opener Starburst, his Guitar Concerto with Jason Vieaux, and his recently premiered Symphony No. 4, “Heichalos” featuring the Violins of Hope. Among his earlier featured recordings on the Naxos American Classics label are his Violin Concerto No. 1 with Charles Wetherbee and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, selected among Naxos’ Top 40 CDs the year of its release; and his Symphony No. 1, conducted by Michael Stern with the IRIS Chamber Orchestra along with Leshnoff’s chamber music. An all-Leshnoff recording of the Atlanta Symphony performing Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2 and Zohar oratorio was released in November 2016. In December 2017, the recent band arrangement of Leshnoff’s Clarinet Concerto was featured with Philadelphia Orchestra principal Ricardo Morales in a recording with the United States Marine Band.

Celebrated by Fanfare magazine as “the real thing,” Leshnoff’s music has been lauded by Strings Magazine as “distinct from anything else that’s out there” and by The Baltimore Sun as “remarkably assured, cohesively constructed and radiantly lyrical.” Leshnoff’s catalog is vast, including several symphonies and oratorios in addition to numerous concerti, solo, and chamber works. Leshnoff is a Professor of Music at Towson University.

The composer has provided the following information about the Symphony No. 4, written by Thomas May, for the recording of the work by Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony on Naxos:

“My essential aesthetic has always been that I have to communicate and take people on a journey,” Leshnoff says. “Where listeners decide to go, what they do with the music they hear, is of course going to be based on their own lives and what is inside them.”

Leshnoff believes that the symphony and concerto have endured “because they are time-tested forms that have shown they work. But I believe in pouring fresh wine into these old flasks, to shed new light so there’s something fresh: in harmony and expression and also in the architectural form.”

Jewish spirituality has provided an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the composer, who was commissioned to write his Symphony No. 4 for the Nashville Symphony’s Violins of Hope project. This extraordinary collection of stringed instruments, which were played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust, have been painstakingly restored by Israeli luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein.

“The root of Judaism is the teaching and philosophy of monotheism and Jewish ethics,” the composer says. “This is what has kept the Jewish people together through all the millennia of persecutions. I see the Violins of Hope as the physical embodiment of this Jewish survival. And I see my Symphony as a representation of the spiritual/ethical embodiment of this Jewish survival.”

The Symphony No. 4’s subtitle, “Heichalos,” provides the key to this spiritual dimension, which in turn shapes the work’s formal design. This Hebrew word refers literally to “rooms” and also to an ancient Jewish mystical text, Heichalos Rabbasai. “Written approximately 2,000 years ago, it is one of a few texts that explicitly describes the way to attain a mystical encounter with the higher worlds,” Leshnoff explains. “Through the means outlined in the text, the initiate meditates himself into ‘rooms,’ where he advances, room by room, to a communion with the Divine. The Rabbis who were qualified to teach and attempt this type of meditation have long ago ceased to walk the face of this Earth.”

The composer describes his Symphony No. 4 as “a musical depiction of the initiate’s travels through these rooms.” The music proceeds in two parts of roughly equal lengths. These should not be thought of as “movements” in the usual sense, because the two parts have such distinctive characters, though they are connected by the arresting theme stated majestically at the outset.

Part I refers to the opening and to a later chapter of the Heichalos text: “When one enters the [first] room, he knows everything that will happen in the terrestrial world … when he is on a higher level, he sees each person’s secret deeds … when he is on yet a higher level, he is separated from mankind; anyone who tries to harm him is rebuked by a Heavenly tribunal … and when he approaches the seventh room, the angelic Chayos glare at him each with their 512 eyes, each stare like a flash of lightning.”

The overall character of the music here, says Leshnoff, is of a darker hue than anything he had hitherto written. The composer deploys thick orchestration. “This does not have the lightness and nuanced touch of my other works.”

In contrast, Leshnoff characterizes Part II as “a love song between humanity and God. There’s a lot more nuance and detail, which is heard in the string writing, with the added sonorities of harp and soft percussion. The audience should feel as if suddenly they have been pushed from one extreme to the other.” Leshnoff’s score appends brief quotes from Chapter 28 of the Heichalos text, which glorifies various qualities of “the One who lives forever.”

It is here that the Violins of Hope come into the foreground: the strings alone play extended, slow, quasi-Mahlerian lines, and following a massive climax for full orchestra later in the movement, they again take center stage at the end.

At the beginning of Part II, the composer has written the question “Who do you love?” into the score. At the end, he adds: “Where are they now?” Leshnoff explains that he has been exploring how to make “the transitions from music to enter into spiritual realms.” Thus, the start of Part II is a measure of notated rest with this first question held as long as the conductor is inclined: “I want the musicians to meditate on that phrase and to start thinking about who they love. Then, at the end, what has happened to them – are they dead or alive, part of your life?”

 

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940)

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Above the score for the first movement of his Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff wrote the curious indication, “Non allegro.” Now, virtually all of the music written during the last four centuries bears some similar inscription as an instruction to the performers about the work’s tempo. What is unusual here is the negative instruction implied by “Non allegro.” Musically speaking, “Allegro” simply means “fast,” but “not fast” (slow? medium? very fast?) is frustratingly ambiguous, and it may be that with this unusual heading Rachmaninoff was trying to convey a message greater than merely the speed of the music.

When tempo markings first came into common use around 1600, they employed the lingua franca of the art — Italian. Originally, these markings indicated the mood and spirit of a work rather than its precise tempo. (Metronomes to measure exact speed were not invented until Beethoven’s time, and the method of determining tempo by heart beats suggested by certain 17th-century theorists was inherently problematic.) “Largo,” for example, means “wide, broad”; “Grave,” “heavy, stern, serious”; “Adagio,” “at ease”; “Andante,” “walking”; and “Allegro” means “cheerful, merry, happy.” If Rachmaninoff’s indication is interpreted in this wider sense, it means “not cheerful” or “unhappy,” and this seems to be as much a guide to the man himself as to his Symphonic Dances.

The word that most easily attaches to Rachmaninoff and his music is “melancholy.” His photographs, invariably unsmiling, tell of the basic strain of sadness inherent in his personality. It is said that the only time he laughed or showed any joy was among his family and his most intimate Russian friends, and even then, only rarely. Perhaps he never fully recovered from the complete failure of his First Symphony in 1897. Of that painful experience he wrote, “The despair that filled my soul would not leave me. My dreams of a brilliant career lay shattered. My hopes and confidences were destroyed…. When the indescribable torture of this performance at last came to an end, I was a different man.” He suffered a nervous collapse as a result of the fiasco, and was treated in Moscow by Dr. Nicholas Dahl, whose technique of hypnotic auto-suggestion (“I will compose again. I will be successful,” intoned Rachmaninoff for hours on end) proved effective in reviving the composer’s self-confidence, if not in altering his basic pessimism.

World War I, of course, was a trial for Rachmaninoff and his countrymen, but his most severe personal adversity came when the 1917 Revolution smashed the aristocratic society of Russia — the only world he had ever known. He was forced to flee his beloved country for America and he pined for his homeland the rest of his life. He did his best to keep the old language, food, customs and holidays alive in his own household, “but it was at best synthetic,” wrote American musicologist David Ewen. “Away from Russia, which he could never hope to see again, he always felt lonely and sad, a stranger even in lands that were ready to be hospitable to him. His homesickness assumed the character of a disease as the years passed, and one symptom of that disease was an unshakable melancholy.” By 1940, when he composed the Symphonic Dances, he was filled with worry over his daughter Tatiana, who was trapped in France by the German invasion (he never saw her again), and had been weakened by a minor operation in May. Still, he felt the need to compose for the first time since the Third Symphony of 1936. The three Symphonic Dances were written quickly at his summer retreat on Long Island Sound, an idyllic setting for creative work, where he had a studio by the water in which to work in seclusion, lovely gardens for walking, and easy access to a ride in his new cabin cruiser, one of his favorite amusements. Still, it was the man and not the setting that was expressed in this music. “I try to make music speak directly and simply that which is in my heart at the time I am composing,” he once told an interviewer. “If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”

It is nostalgic sadness that permeates the works of Rachmaninoff’s later years. Like a grim marker, the ancient chant Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass for the Dead courses through the Paganini Rhapsody (1934), the Second (1908) and Third (1936) Symphonies and the Symphonic Dances (1940). The Symphonic Dances were his last important creation, coming less than three years before his death from cancer at age 70. After they were done, he lamented that he no longer had the “strength and fire” to compose. “I don’t know what happened,” he told a friend about them. “That was probably my last flicker.” Despite all, however, there is nothing morbid about the Symphonic Dances. They breathe a spirit of dark determination against a world of trial, a hard-fought musical affirmation of the underlying resiliency of life. Received with little enthusiasm when they were new, these Dances have come to be regarded as among the finest of Rachmaninoff’s works.

When he was composing them, Rachmaninoff may have had an eye toward producing the Symphonic Dances as a ballet. Even before the orchestration was completed, he called in the renowned Michael Fokine, who had successfully choreographed the Paganini Rhapsody. After hearing the composer play his new piece on the piano, Fokine told him he liked the music very much, but felt it held little balletic promise. It is only the second movement (subtitled “Tempo di valse”) that bears a clear relationship to a particular dance type, while those flanking it are more symphonic in substance and form. Once he had been discouraged from a stage presentation of these movements, Rachmaninoff dropped their temporary titles of “Midday,” “Twilight” and “Midnight” — which may have been philosophical references to the ages of man — and never said another word about the programmatic intent of the music. He was proud of the Symphonic Dances, both as music and as accomplishment, and he wrote the appreciative phrase “I thank thee, Lord” on the last page of the manuscript.

The first of the Symphonic Dances, in a large three-part form (A–B–A), is spun from a tiny three-note descending motive heard at the beginning that serves as the germ for much of the opening section’s thematic material. The middle portion is given over to a folk-like melody initiated by the alto saxophone. The return of the opening section, with its distinctive falling motive, rounds out the first movement. The waltz of the second movement was inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky rather than by that of the Strauss family. It is more rugged and deeply expressive than the Viennese variety, and possesses the quality of inconsolable pathos that gives so much of Rachmaninoff’s music its sharply defined personality. The finale begins with a sighing introduction for the winds, which leads into a section in quicker tempo whose vital rhythms may have been influenced by the syncopations of American jazz. Soon after this faster section begins, the chimes play a pattern reminiscent of the opening phrase of the Dies Irae chant. The sighing measures recur and are considerably extended, acquiring new thematic material but remaining unaltered in mood. When the fast, jazz-inspired music returns, its thematic relationship with the Dies Irae is strengthened. The movement accumulates an almost visceral rhythmic energy as it progresses, virtually exploding into the last pages, a coda based on an ancient Russian Orthodox chant (which he had earlier used in his All-Night Vigil Service of 1915) whose entry Rachmaninoff noted by inscribing “Alliluya” in the score. Was a specific message intended here? As the Alliluya succeeds the Dies Irae, did the composer mean to show that the Church conquers death? Optimism, sadness? Rachmaninoff was silent on the matter, except to say, “A composer always has his own ideas of his works, but I do not believe he ever should reveal them. Each listener should find his own meaning in the music.”

©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda

UPCOMING EVENTS

Back To Top